KHARTOUM, Sudan — Protesters stood behind a brick barricade in downtown Khartoum last week and did what they've done for almost two months: demand an end to Sudan's military rule. But the soldiers on the other side had a different response. First, they raised their weapons skyward and fired into the air.
"Then they started aiming," said Muzdihir Abdulmunim, a 31-year-old father of two, speaking from a hospital bed after the attack. "And that's when I was shot."
Abdulmunim was one of dozens of protesters shot last week in Khartoum, allegedly by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a notorious militia led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo.
Dagolo, better known as "Hemeti," carries a long record of alleged atrocities in Darfur, and he’s brought his reputation for violence to Khartoum. Both protest leaders and the U.S. envoy blamed the RSF for the outbreak in violence last week, which took place just as military and civilian negotiators were on the cusp of a deal to form a new government. Now, those talks have collapsed.
In Sudan's chaos, Hemeti is working to solidify his dominance. In mid-April, he seized on the mass protests, playing a crucial role in ousting long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir. Now, as deputy of the ruling military junta overseeing the transition, and leader of the country's largest militia, he may just be the most powerful man in Khartoum. He may also be to be the main obstacle to achieving lasting peace in Sudan.
If Hemeti “doesn't get what he wants, for him and others around him, he can use violence in both Khartoum and Darfur,” said Jerome Tubiana, a researcher who has studied conflicts in Chad and Sudan for over 20 years. "If he gets what he wants, he will likely try to increase his power further.”
Born into a family of impoverished herders in Darfur, Hemeti traded livestock before turning to fighting for a living. He became a commander in the Janjaweed, the Arab militia accused of committing genocide in Darfur in the early 2000s, before taking over RSF, which became Bashir’s main enforcer against counter-insurgencies in Darfur and elsewhere.
"They were brave, they were fighters, but they were wild," said one Sudanese army lieutenant about the RSF, who he fought alongside in Darfur's Jebel Marra region.
Key to Hemeti's battlefield success were his cavalry tactics: launching flash raids with pick-ups against rebels accustomed to Sudan's slower-moving regular army, said Tubiana. The RSF also became known for its brutality: torching villages, raping women, and murdering civilians.
Al-Fadhil Abdulaziz was in Darfur’s Kalma Camp in 2017 when RSF troops allegedly opened fire on him and other displaced Darfuris as they organized a demonstration against Bashir.
"We woke up and found all these forces surrounding the camp," Abdulaziz recalled from his station in Khartoum’s sit-in. "We were going to the UN [peacekeeping] base to start our protest there, but instead they started shooting us."
Hemeti is more than a violent militia leader. He’s also a businessman. Under Bashir’s rule, he capitalized on Sudan’s vast pool of poor, uneducated nomads like himself, some of them still children, to build the RSF into a massive mercenary army — ready to fight anyone’s battles for a fee, said Magdi el-Gizouli, a fellow at Nairobi’s Rift Valley Institute.
That business means Hemeti has a lot of powerful friends outside of Sudan: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pay him to send troops to fight their war in Yemen; the European Union relies on the RSF to stem the movement of people through Sudan to the Mediterranean. He is also said to have a foothold in Sudan’s human trafficking and gold smuggling underworld.
Sudan’s newest populist
Hemeti now appears to be using his position in Khartoum to launch his next act: populist politician. With his boyish smirk and trademark baseball cap, he’s voiced support for the revolution, visited wounded protesters in hospital, and paid bail for hundreds of low-level prisoners.
The PR campaign seems to be working, even as his forces are widely believed to have violently undermined negotiations last week. Blunt speaking and hailing from Sudan’s impoverished peripheries, he appears to be something of a working class hero for some rural folk sidelined by Khartoum’s elite, be they conservative Islamists like Bashir or the sit-in’s bourgeoisie leftists.
"People here from Khartoum think Hemeti is ignorant, he's uncivilized. They don't mean just himself, but his forces,” said Darfuri academic Adeeb Yousif of George Mason University.
Hemeti has used this perception to his advantage.
"Some Darfurians accept him to be a leader, and that is only from the point that they feel Hemeti is coming from a marginalized area like them, who grew up in poverty like them,” Yousif added.
Former Sudanese Prime Minister Saddiq al-Mahdi, who last held the position in 1989, said Hemeti has earned a "national role.” Darfuri rebel leader Minni Minnawi, who long battled the RSF, said Hemeti is de-facto "ruling Sudan" and could be a "representative" of Darfur.
"I fought him more than anybody else," said Minnawi. "But now there is a new situation. Now he becomes part of the change and elements of the change."
Khartoum is starting to feel the effects of Hemeti’s newfound power. RSF troops are all over the city: at bridges, key intersections, and around the sit-in. Hemeti’s own bodyguard comprises a fleet of Land Cruisers and Hiluxes mounted with heavy machine guns and carrying soldiers armed with pistols, AK-47s, sniper rifles, PKM light machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades. There is even an anti-aircraft weapon in tow.
The RSF’s presence in Khartoum frightens protesters like Abdulaziz. “When I see them around us, I feel like at any time they could shoot us,” he said.
It also raises fears of a power struggle between Hemeti’s troops and the regular army. Sudan’s regular army was long considered the undisputedly dominant armed group in the capital, but the RSF presents a serious threat.
“Someone will have to have authority over the other,” said el-Gizouli, warning that Hemeti will not easily back down. "You wouldn't work your way up from a simple merchant in Darfur to become the second or first most important person in power, and then give it up."
Governments who say they support a transition to civilian rule are struggling to navigate Hemeti’s rise to power. Last Wednesday, for instance, the U.S. envoy to Sudan accused Hemeti’s troops of shooting peaceful protesters, only to dine with him on Saturday.
“It puts us in a difficult position,” said one Western diplomat, who was not authorized to speak to press. “For a new government to achieve legitimacy with their own people and with the international community, it will need leaders who are credible and can show a break from the actions of the old government. Hemeti's not really a credible actor, but he's not going anywhere. His forces are in Khartoum."
The RSF commander has made that abundantly clear in recent weeks. But he's also revealed another truth: the protesters at the sit-in, which has become the vanguard of Sudan’s democracy movement, are overwhelmingly against him.
"I hate the RSF because they hate us," said a chemistry teacher who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. "They are not the army of Sudan, they are just militia. With a few dollars, they can do anything."
That divide may spell more violence for Sudan’s revolution.
Jason Patinkin is a reporter who has covered East Africa since 2012.
Cover image: Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo (known as Hemeti), commander of the Rapid Support Forces militia, enters an Iftar meal in his honor on May 18 2019 in Khartoum Sudan. (Jason Patinkin for VICE News).